May 12--WASHINGTON -- The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday proposed a dramatic revamping of airline pilot and crew training, a move that would turn many of the lessons learned from the February 2009 plane crash in Clarence Center into law.
Under the FAA proposal, for the first time, pilots would have to be trained to recover from the kind of stall that sent Continental Connection Flight 3407 plummeting into a house, killing 50 people.
They would have to be familiar with the stall-recovery equipment in the planes they fly, which the crew of Flight 3407 was not.
Unlike Capt. Marvin D. Renslow, pilot of the doomed plane, pilots could no longer fail flight tests and then receive no remedial training to make up for their deficiencies.
In addition, the rule would address many of the training problems pointed out in an award-winning Buffalo News series in December 2009, "Who's Flying Your Airplane?"
For example, pilots would have to be trained to fly in the weather conditions they are likely to experience in their jobs and would get simulator training on sudden emergency "upsets" and be required to recover from them.
"The FAA is proposing the most significant changes to air carrier training in 20 years. This is a major effort to strengthen the performance of pilots," said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt.
Members of the Families of Continental Flight 3407, who pushed passage of a law that requires many of the changes in training, said the FAA proposal looks good to them, at least so far.
"While we are not in a position to give our wholehearted endorsement as of yet, at first glance, we are very pleased to see many of the deficiencies that contributed to Flight 3407 addressed," said Scott Maurer, of Moore, S.C., whose daughter, Lorin, was killed in the crash.
In general, the rule spells out a much more comprehensive training regimen that will better reflect real-world situations.
"Rather than just have a pilot execute a skill in isolation, the new training will require a more realistic and coordinated effort by the crew, as if they were on a real flight," Babbitt said. "It will be a lot more lifelike."
For one thing, crews will have to work together in their training regimens, just as they would in a flight.
And they will have to have additional experiences in the simulator that echo what could, in the worst-case scenario, happen in the cockpit of an airplane.
The FAA had long questioned the notion of training pilots in recovering from aerodynamic stalls, where a plane loses so much speed that its wings can no longer keep it aloft.
That's because pilots are supposed to never allow a plane to reach a stall in the first place, and because earlier-generation simulators were not able to mimic a full stall.
But thanks to new simulator technology, "now you can put someone in a stall scenario and let them recover," Babbitt said.
The National Transportation Safety Board blamed pilot error for the Clarence Center crash, and the biggest pilot error of all involved stall recovery.
Investigators found that Renslow pulled back on the plane's yoke when he should have pushed forward -- which could have been related to the fact that he had never received simulator training in the plane's stall-recovery system.
Such training would be required, though, under the FAA proposal, and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said that only makes sense.
"Practical training encompassing potential emergency scenarios will help to better prepare skilled pilots entrusted with the lives of hundreds of people at 35,000 feet in the air," Higgins said.
Babbitt also stressed that the proposal requires remedial training for pilots such as Renslow, who show during test flights that their skills are lacking.
In addition, airlines will have to tailor their training to their flight routes. For example, airlines that fly in the Midwest would have to put a greater emphasis on flying in thunderstorms, while airlines flying in Alaska would have to pay more attention to training in flying in wintry conditions.
And throughout the new training regimen, there would be a new element of surprise. Sudden upsets will be included at unexpected times.
Crew members "are going to train as a team," Babbitt said. "They will have had real-life exposure."
The new rules are a rewrite of a proposal the FAA put forth a month before the Clarence Center crash.
The agency has spent more than two years rewriting the proposal to incorporate industry feedback, react to the lessons of Flight 3407 and respond to the new congressional mandates.
While generally lauding the proposal, the Flight 3407 families warned that it is by no means set in stone.
The airline industry will still have a chance to press regulators for changes that could weaken the proposal.
"This rule-making has been in progress for nearly a decade, which shows what a strong grip that the airlines and the industry already have on this process," said Susan Bourque of East Aurora, whose sister Beverly Eckert, a 9/11 activist, was killed in the crash.
The proposal also faces a potential threat from Congress in the form of an amendment by Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa. The amendment, which would place new burdens on the FAA rule-making process, passed the House on April 1.
While the amendment's prospects in the Senate appear to be dim, Bourque warned that if passed, the Shuster amendment could stand in the way of several FAA regulatory efforts stemming from the crash of Flight 3407.
The FAA is still working on a separate rule that would boost the number of flight hours that pilots must have to get a commercial license, and on a pro posal aimed at curbing pilot fatigue.
Asked about the timing of the proposed rules, Margaret "Peggy" Gilligan, associate administrator for aviation safety, said: "We are pushing as fast as we can for as much as we can."
With so many new safety rules being drawn up at once, both the families and their congressional advocates stressed that they will have to continue to press for their completion.
"These new training proposals are an important step forward toward fixing the flaws in pilot training that contributed to the crash," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., "but our work is far from over."